Of all the parties involved in the Korean missile crisis, the most difficult to read is China.
China’s talks about the need for a peaceful resolution do little to reveal what China’s real interests and objectives are. And what they are is multiple and conflicting.
At one level, China is concerned with the balance of power on the Korean Peninsula. China doesn’t want Pyongyang to have nuclear weapons, and it doesn’t want the peninsula to unify. (George Friedman discussed the geopolitical reality of China and North Korea in its exclusive e-book, The World Explained in Maps, which you can download here)
But at the same time, what happens on the Korean Peninsula also affects China’s relationship with the US. And despite the deep economic ties between the two countries, from Beijing’s perspective, that is a relationship defined ultimately by fear and mistrust.
Cycles of History
Soon after the US presidential election, President-elect Donald Trump did something that no US president had done for more than 37 years: He had direct contact with the president of Taiwan.
It may seem a small thing, but for Beijing, this was not a trivial moment.
It took Trump another two months to accept the “One China” policy—two months where Chinese strategic planners were left to wonder what the United States’ true intentions were with regard to Taiwan, and China’s territorial integrity in general.
From the perspective of the Communist Party of China’s political legitimacy, Taiwan is the only part of China it has been unable to capture and integrate into its revolution. As far as China’s defense strategy goes, Taiwan is an island 100 miles (160 kilometers) away from the mainland that a powerful navy could use as a base from which to blockade China or even to attack the mainland.
If Taiwan were to gain US recognition and perhaps even host US forces, what is already a Chinese handicap would become an existential threat. It would also make a mockery of China’s faux-aggressiveness in the South China Sea and would make previous American freedom of navigation operations look friendly in comparison.
China also faced another potential threat from the Trump administration: the potential that the US might block Chinese exports from the US market. A trade conflict between the two sides would hurt both parties, but China was always going to be hurt more.
And President Xi Jinping could not afford an economic crisis in the lead-up to this month’s Party Congress, where he will solidify his dictatorship over the country.
What China needed, then, was a bargaining chip, a way of turning its position of weakness into one of strength. Enter North Korea.
China had to proceed carefully. On the one hand, China had to appear to have enough control over Pyongyang to divert the Trump administration from following through on some of its threats to redefine the US-China economic relationship.
On the other hand, China could not overstate its influence in North Korea such that the US could hold China directly accountable for failure to help denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
The July 2017 revelation by China’s Ministry of Defense that contact between the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and North Korea’s military forces has completely ceased in recent years was meant to underline the limits of what Trump’s bargain with Xi at Mar-a-Lago in April had bought.
In reality, Xi has as little control over Kim Jong-un’s actions as Mao had over Kim Il-sung’s. But Xi does not need total control over Kim’s regime to use Kim to China’s advantage; all he needs is for China and North Korea to share an interest in limiting US power in Asia—and there is little to suggest that interest is going away anytime soon.
North Korea is pursuing a nuclear weapons programs to establish a nuclear deterrent against the United States. China doesn’t have to make such moves. It already has nuclear weapons and is far more powerful than Pyongyang.
That allows China to be more pragmatic in its dealings with the United States. But China’s pragmatism and willingness to work with the US should not obscure the fact that, like North Korea, China is deeply suspicious of US motives.
This, in turn, is one of the major limiting factors on the US ability to attack North Korea. China has a mutual defense treaty with North Korea. And China, though it would prefer the status quo on the Korean Peninsula, does not necessarily lose if the US were to try to solve the North Korea issue by force.
This is because the attempt, absent some unknown technological devilry, wouldn’t work. The US has tried and failed twice to win a war on the Asian mainland, and the situation in Korea hasn’t improved enough to think that the third time would be any different.
China can’t beat the US at sea, and it can’t take back Taiwan, but it can beat the US in North Korea. That allows China to remind the US that, though Beijing may not yet be able to achieve One China, its memory is long, its patience is vast, and classes in Confucian humility are readily available to those who seek them out.
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